The customer is always right: a controversial motto | Sunday Observer

The customer is always right: a controversial motto

11 April, 2021

Most of us have heard the catchy phrase ‘The customer is always right’ and on almost all occasions as a customer, you may have felt that this applies to you. However, in reality, is this statement correct at all times? The slogan that is known to have been popularised by the respected American-British retail magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge, Sr. in the 1900s has come into criticism time and again. 

The idea behind this phrase is to inculcate a sense of importance to sustain the quality of the customer service provided by commercial organisations. Retention of customers for repeat business is one of the most important tasks in an organisation. Therefore, the employees of the organisation must be trained to make decisions that can benefit customers to build up loyalty. In my long experience in selling, I opine that this customer-centric ideology is still valid and relevant even as of today. 

However, everyone who is engaged in direct customer handling knows that this statement cannot be taken as absolute truth or certainty. In the span of my forty-year career in selling, I have come across thousands of customers with varied attitudes, characteristics, and personalities. Hence, I would say that the customer should be managed by offering him or her the center stage without consenting to every negative action of them, just because they are customers. The statement is more of a figurative motto rather than a classic golden rule. In my opinion, the statement is subjective and situational in actual application. 

Not in reality

A key point to remember is that the customer is always right in their own mind but it may not be so in reality. Nevertheless, it is dangerous to disagree with the customer and make them argumentative or unhappy. Such action may drive them away forever. Having stated that, I must reiterate that the negative-minded customers, who most often have a justifiable reason, can be and should be handled with caution to dispel bad opinions. 

There are two sides to the actual meaning of the phrase. On the positive side, the most significant task of a commercial entity is to make customers happy as best as possible. Therefore, one must understand that there are many benefits when the staff of the organisation believe the sentiment that the customer is always right. It is also an absolute truth that finding a new customer is far more difficult and costlier than retaining customers. 

On the contrary, organisations should not accept this motto in its literal meaning as there are many misconceptions related to the statement. There are cases where customers overstep the boundaries, abuse employees, and attempt to rip off the business. Particularly, almost every customer believes the statement, whenever they become customers and sometimes demand unwarranted benefits. This is the reason that companies must train the staff to ‘manage’ customers rather than merely handling them. 

Critiques of the phrase say that treating customers like they are always right can be detrimental to businesses in the long run. They say that it can weaken employee morale, use up important resources and even hurt other customers.

Award-winning researcher in marketing, Prof. Peter S. Fader says that not all customers deserve your best efforts. Despite the adage, customers are not always right and there are good customers and then there is everybody else.  I agree with this opinion as I have come across both types of customers.  

Multiple benefits come with the ‘Customer is always right’ approach. There is no doubt that your customers are your business. The success of a business is completely dependent on customers’ trust and loyalty. Without them, the business will not survive, let alone be successful. Besides, customer feedback, whether negative or positive, can improve the quality of service tremendously.  

Core ideology

Customers’ feedback and complaints must be the core ideology and the utmost priority of everybody in the business. The important thing to understand is that if you neglect this reality, your competitors will grab them. Letting the competitors steal your customers is the most critical issue in a business. Neglecting this truth can lead to the closure of many business entities around the world. 

Ignoring complaints from the core customer base can turn against the business. Unattended complaints can lead to animosity and the backlash can take a long time and a lot of money to resolve. On the other hand, if the complaints and feedback are managed well, it can help identify new business lines and new revenue sources.

In this internet era where your customers are becoming more personal through social media, email, texting, and live chats, the impact of unsatisfactory comments can be injurious to the business. Therefore, more refined strategies must be developed and relevant staff training must be considered to manage customers. 

There are always nasty, unreasonable, and irritable customers in a business. Depending on the size of the business, at least ten percent of your customers can fall into this category.  If your staff becomes too gullible on the phrase, these customers can make them miserable. I have come across such situations multiple times as a salesman and a manager.

In these situations, the management has to strike a balance and support the employees. By giving adequate training on customer complaint handling, this situation can be managed for the mutual benefit of both the company and the customer. 

Unreasonable customers

Some customers try to imply that they are more knowledgeable than your employees who know the products or services thoroughly.  Similarly, there are those who presume that they can run your business better. 

For example, when I was selling telephone systems for an organisation long years back, I came across one of the most respected medical professionals in the country at the time, who acted as if he knew everything about the product. He refused to accept almost every explanation I attempted to make and was compelled to act dumb and deaf to secure the sale. Ultimately, however, the said customer made a wrong buying decision. At the time, I was guided by the ‘customer is always right’ motto.  

Unreasonable customers can create a bad experience not only for your staff but also for other customers.  These customers are simply not right but they are usually influenced by the phrase and presume that they are always right and the company is bound to act accordingly. They can create unpleasant and stressful situations involving other customers as well. 

I attempt to emphasise that even though the customers are extremely important, you have to manage them appropriately when it comes to issues. It goes without saying that the company and its staff should strive for service excellence. You should make your best attempt to make the clientele happy. 

However, if you always adopt the ‘the customer is right’ policy, there are chances that you may hurt the business. In such situations, you lead your employees to become disappointed and kill their morale. You will empower rude customers by setting bad examples, slow down innovation and even create unhappy situations for other customers.    

Therefore, rather than acting like the customer is always right, you have to treat them the best way you can as professionals who know best about your products or services. There are many ways to manage bad customers and your employees must be made aware of those by training them. Without being unpleasant, in a helpful way, the customers must be made to understand that you are in the business of serving them to their maximum satisfaction.